Bone Room Meditations XVI: Illustrations of Archaeology/Archaeology of Illustrations

December 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

What’s the difference between what you do and what I do?

This was the question posed to me a couple of months ago by Ian Dennis, a very talented illustrator who works within the Cardiff University Department of Archaeology. To be honest I am still working hard to find a definitive answer. Ian and I have shared a number of very enjoyable conversations during my time in the Department, mostly over a pint or two, and it was during one of these conversations that he asked me this question.

Archaeological illustrations can be very beautiful. They reveal truths about the objects that they depict that might otherwise go unnoticed or, more importantly, unseen. This is one of the things that art does, it brings aspects of the none visible world into the light – or it controls nuances of meaning through nuances of visual emphasis.

There is also the fact that these illustrations almost always convey something of the identity of the artist/illustrator, something that might lie in the numberless subtle decisions made in the labour of shading, or perhaps within the slight variations in the width of a line that captures the unsteady operations of the nervous system; it’s not necessary, in other words, to dig deeply into the archaeology of these images to find evidence of the mind that made them.

Human Skull, engraving by William Miller

All drawings made by hand are the product of a peculiarly intimate relationship between an artist and a subject. They are unique records of a period of time spent in close observation. As such they all deserve to be treated as works of art.

So, what is the difference between what Ian does and what I do? Of course the big difference is that Ian makes drawings of objects that are real and I make drawings that are essentially chimera – little imaginary monsters constructed from fragments of ideas brought into juxtaposition. I am also in the privileged position of being allowed to use loose mark marking to create passages of ambiguity within my sketches. But are they really so different? All drawings exist to some degree in the world of the imagination, they all evoke rather than replace the object that they depict.

Third Eye - skull with supernumerary orbit

George Dickie defines a work of art as an artifact ‘which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting in behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld)’. Which seems to be something of a tautology to me or, at the very least, a closed shop. The fact that conversations might happen regarding the status of archaeological illustration as art, and about the vitality and validity of human expression within this art form can only be to the good in my opinion.


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